"Peasants, Power, and Place: Revolution in the Villages of Kharkiv Province, 1914–1921" by Mark R. Baker

August 4, 2016
baker book cover

baker book coverHURI Publications is pleased to announce that Dr. Mark R. Baker’s book, Peasants, Power, and Place: Revolution in the Villages of Kharkiv Province, 1914–1921, is now available. The book is part of the Harvard Series in Ukrainian Studies.

Published: August 2016
Paperpack, 296 pages, $39.95
ISBN 978-1-932650-15-0
Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute Publications

Most history books on Ukraine’s revolutionary period focus on national leaders, Bolsheviks, and urban workers, implying that the attitudes and views of the peasants - the most populous class - were either insignificant or aligned with those of the leaders. However, Ukrainian peasants had a much different perspective than urban or political figures, one that was shaped by a number of factors and events. What exactly did they think, and how did they adapt during the transition to a Soviet republic?

Baker’s book fills this gap in the scholarship, adding the experience of the peasants in Kharkiv Province to existing information on national leadership. This, in turn, creates a more comprehensive understanding of the revolutionary period.

“My main goal in writing the book was to shed some light on these many, neglected, but important people’s experiences of war, revolution, and civil war,” Baker said. “The book addresses the broader problem of social revolution in a peasant country, focusing on the consequences for villages of political leaders’ attempts to implement such radical, ambitious policies.”

Kharkiv peasants: A valuable case study

Kharkiv serves as an excellent point of study for the period because of its centrality to the revolutionary events in Ukraine. It became the first capital of the Ukrainian RSR. Nonetheless, aside from local, Soviet-period work, little research has been done on the province. Instead, Ukrainian historians have tended to focused on the cities, particularly Kyiv and Lviv, to the neglect of Ukraine’s other regions and settlements.

Supported by sources from Ukrainian and Russian archives, as well as documents at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Baker’s insights into the experiences of these peasants can be generalized to much of Ukraine’s countryside and the broader Russian empire, including Russian-speaking peasants.

Baker examined documents dating from 1914 to 1917 of various local, district, and provincial police departments, as well as the Kharkiv governor’s reports and data from the governor’s so-called sekretynyi stol’. Because of the rapid deterioration of the state in 1917, Baker had to seek information from a wider variety of sources for that time, including newspapers and protocols of local soviets. He uncovered a rare find in Ukraine: an extensive collection of the minutes of the Kharkiv Provincial Soviet of Peasants’ Deputies. German archives and the local gendarme of the Ukrainian State supplied materials for 1918, while 1919 sources included Soviet documents and documents from the Hoover Institution. Cheka reports to party leaders were particularly revealing of local attitudes, Baker noted.

Photo credit: No. 0-175221 from the H. S. Pshenychnyi Central State Archives of Films, Photographs, and Sound Recordings of Ukraine.

Unexpected attitudes and activities

Beyond making data about peasant life in revolutionary Ukraine available to historians, Baker’s research uncovered a number of surprising and significant conclusions. From the role of women to the view of Ukrainian nationalism, common assumptions about the peasant experience did not always align with reality.

“Probably the most unusual phenomenon in my research was the rise of the soldatki (wives of soldiers) during World War I,” Baker explained. “As I describe in Chapter 1, these women became the leading social activists in the village during the war, leading sometimes violent protests against the government’s continuing efforts to carry out the Stolypin land reform, and against attempts to fix prices on basic foodstuffs, which they sometimes sold from their harvests.” (Read an excerpt on the soldatki here.)

The book also presents evidence that most peasants were not very interested in the national idea, thinking in very local terms instead of adopting notions like nation and class. However, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also played a distinct part in separating the peasants from nationalist projects, Baker found. Part of the treaty saw Bolshevik Russia renounce Ukraine to Germany.

“I uncovered a lot of new evidence about the crucial role that the first Treaty of Brest-Litovsk played in events in Ukraine, both isolating Ukrainian peasants from events in Soviet Russia for most of 1918, and negatively stigmatizing the Ukrainian national project for many peasants,” Baker said. “This effect arose from the behavior of German soldiers during the occupation, as well as the peasants’ association of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and Ukrainian State with the German soldiers’ presence and behavior.” (Excerpt here.)

These factors form the backdrop of Baker’s final chapter, a very extensive study on the countryside’s transition from the civil war to the early Soviet Republic. With new approaches and discoveries, this research unveils how complex, contradictory, and important peasants’ experiences were, providing new insight into the many dimensions of social movements and revolutions.

The book is available through the Harvard University Press catalog and on Amazon.com.

Mark BakerDr. Mark R. Baker is a historian and Assistant Professor of European History at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. In the past, he has taught at California State University, Bakersfield, Lviv National University, Harvard University, and University of Alberta. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Alberta, followed by a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University. His recent articles include, “The Armenian Genocide and Its Denial: A Review of Recent Scholarship,” “War and Revolution in Ukraine: Kharkiv Province’s Peasants’ Experiences of War, Revolution, and Occupation, 1914-18,” and “Did he really do it? Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, Party Disloyalty, and the 1923 Affair.”